PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — There is little that seems improbable for Fernando Rodney as a countdown continues toward Opening Day. His World Baseball Classic display of force is a point of nationalistic pride for the native of Samana, Dominican Republic, but it’s also a warning salvo to the rest of the American League East about what could come if his health cooperates.
About a minute into speaking for the first time at Charlotte Sports Park since arriving back from his final moon shot in San Francisco, Rodney slipped on a red-and-blue Dominican Republic cap, tilted the bill to his left and spoke about how what occurred in his country’s colors could be a preview. If results similar to his WBC production follow in a Rays uniform, the right-handed closer’s season will be another blockbuster: He appeared in all eight of the Dominican Republic’s victories, earning seven saves and striking out eight in 7 1/3 innings.
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Rodney’s unknown ahead: How will the WBC cameo affect his play for Tampa Bay? He, predictably, insists that his short absence from southwest Florida won’t be an issue. For now, the Rays have reason to be eager about what his mastery of international competition could mean for them. Still, exercising caution would be wise.
“I’m ready to go right now for the season,” Rodney said Thursday, before the Rays’ 3-1 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays. “I feel good. I started (preparing) last year, in November. I started working because I wanted to represent my country 100 percent. I feel ready to go.”
There’s not much room to argue with him. Appropriately, the WBC’s final seconds Tuesday night morphed into a team-wide tribute to Rodney. After the closer struck out Puerto Rico’s Luis Figueroa on an 83-mph change-up, clinching a 3-0 victory, teammates poured onto AT&T Park’s mound to “shoot the moon” with a player whose game is peaking less than two weeks before the season opener against the Baltimore Orioles.
Study of Rodney goes beyond magic plantains (@Magic_Plantain) and other hocus pocus. We’re observing a renaissance, uncommon focus from someone who has rejuvenated his career. Rodney, in a somewhat surprising turn, appears to have enjoyed an ascent with age. The 36-year-old posted career numbers in 76 appearances last season — a 0.60 ERA with 48 saves in 74 2/3 innings — and it will be curious to see if he can push past those totals in his second season with the Rays.
“He was tough to everybody,” said Rays catcher Jose Molina, part of a Puerto Rico team that lost three times to the Dominican Republic in the WBC. “He pitched well. He showed it last year, and he continued to improve. I don’t see him backing down.”
If he doesn’t, Tampa Bay will benefit. There’s uncertainty about how the Rays will replace former workhorse James Shields’ rotation-high 227 2/3 innings from last year, so a consistent option on the mound with a lead late will make quality starts more valuable. Yes, a trusted closer is a security blanket. But he’s also a license to have peace of mind, which manager Joe Maddon could use as “his process” sorts out life without Big Game James.
Along the way, the task for David Price, Matt Moore, Jeremy Hellickson, Alex Cobb, Jeff Niemann and/or Roberto Hernandez will be simple: Do what’s necessary to place the ball in Rodney’s skilled hand — then watch one of the game’s most disciplined minds on the mound work.
“Nothing different than what we saw all of last year,” said Rays reliever Cesar Ramos, who pitched for Mexico in the WBC. “He was just himself. We saw him throw the arrow 40-something times last year. I guess he’s pretty warmed up and ready to start launching it this season.”
Perhaps, but there’s still a potential pitfall after Rodney’s WBC effort. Arms can be finicky tools, their margin for error at times small, and wear on Rodney is a legitimate worry for Maddon and his staff as the season progresses.
The manager emphasized the issue earlier this week, telling reporters “we’ve got to watch him” and that a physical impact from Rodney’s WBC performance is probable.
Certainly, responsibility for keeping Rodney healthy will fall on Maddon and his staff. (The Rays have planned a five-to-six-day break for Rodney.) But part of the watch, believe it or not, will fall on Rodney as well.
“No, I don’t feel any problems,” Rodney said, when asked if he’s worried about problems late in the season. “I feel great. … I don’t think about September. I think about staying healthy.”
For the Rays, a healthy Rodney in a pennant race would be a formidable weapon. Ben Zobrist saw as much during the WBC, in the bottom of the ninth inning of the Dominican Republic’s 3-1 second-round victory over the United States on March 14, when he was called out on strikes in a seven-pitch sequence after a crisp 96-mph fastball from his Tampa Bay teammate.
That night, the most impressive part about Rodney’s showcase was this: He had Zobrist beat mentally before the first pitch. On Thursday, the Rays infielder/outfielder admitted that he knew it would be difficult for Team USA to score at least two runs on the closer in that situation. Rodney, composed and confident, responded in predictable fashion by retiring Adam Jones (fly out) and Shane Victorino (pop out), in addition to dispatching Zobrist.
“He’s been phenomenal for anybody that he puts a jersey on for lately,” Zobrist said.
Right now, after a WBC display of force to remember, that development bodes well for the Rays. However, results of his true test — durability, sustainability in what could be a tight AL East race — won’t be known for months.